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Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
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A new campaign wants to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece

The body, chaired by former Tory culture minister Ed Vaizey, is trying to send the sculptures back to Athens

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell

It has been announced that a new commission will assess the case for returning the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles to Greece. Former Tory Culture Minister Ed Vaizey will chair the commission. The Greek government has repeatedly demanded the return of the artefacts by the UK, so far to no avail. This time, Vaizey says a ‘deal is within reach’, although the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said: ‘The British Museum is prevented by law from removing objects from its collections, except in some narrow circumstances. The government has no plans to change this act.’ There is also a petition seeking to return the famous Rosetta Stone to Egypt, as well as calls for the British Museum to end its sponsorship deal with oil multinational BP

Here’s everything you need to know about the Elgin Marbles… 

What are the Elgin Marbles?

The Parthenon Sculptures – known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ – is a series of ancient Greek sculptural panels that once formed a frieze around the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis in Athens. Since they were brought to London in the nineteenth century, they have been one of the prize exhibits in the British Museum’s collection.

Why are they in London?

The sculptures were acquired by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century off the Turks, who at the time were occupying Athens. Supposedly, they could have been completely destroyed by the Turkish army. Lord Elgin shipped them to London, and later got the British government to buy them off him to clear his huge debts. They have been in the British Museum since 1832. 

Why are they so debated?

It’s about ownership. The Greeks say that the Parthenon Sculptures were unscrupulously flogged to a British diplomat by an enemy occupying force, and should be returned to Athens. The British Museum has long maintained that Elgin saved the works from destruction and that they have been conserved by the institution. For years, the Greek authorities planned to put the Parthenon Sculptures back on the Acropolis. Now they have built a dedicated museum for them at the foot of the Acropolis. The marbles are a very hot political topic in Greece’s tourist economy and in the global museums world.     

Why would the British Museum not return them now?

Several reasons. The big one is that it would set an international precedent for museums around the world to return cultural artefacts to their countries of origin. Which might sound fine, but is actually a minefield debate involving the preservation of uniquely vulnerable pieces of art versus national prestige, with a bit of illegal trade in art thrown in. Politicians want to be seen as the saviours of their heritage, while experts worry that artefacts will not be looked after properly, or could simply disappear for ever. However, recent research suggests that more and more people are in favour of returning artefacts like the Parthenon Sculptures.

What’s going to happen to the Elgin Marbles?

There is definitely a global change in attitudes towards the international repatriation of artworks. The Horniman Museum in south London has announced that it will return its collection of Benin bronzes. The mass pillaging of cultural artefacts under the British Empire to line our national collections is an incredibly fraught debate, with governments trying to avoid losing face or admitting responsibility for historical looting. 

Anything else?

Until the Parthenon Marbles are returned, keep a look out for those ‘Give Them Back’ T-shirts on visitors to the British Museum. 

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